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Little earth


Arts/science video installation to open in London (January) and Scotland (February).

Two 19th century scientists, each involved with a mountain top observatory, and who each in their own way contributed to the development of ‘big science’ research in the 20th-21st centuries, are to be celebrated by an arts initiative to which University of Leicester space scientists have made an important contribution.

The “Little Earth” project relates to the points of contact between Kristian Birkeland, who studied the northern lights from his Norwegian observatory on Haldde mountain at the end of the 19th century, and CTR Wilson, whose work from the top of Ben Nevis in Scotland led to the invention of the cloud chamber.

After his mountain-top experiences, Birkeland built a ‘plasma universe’ in his laboratory incorporating a ‘terrella’ (or ‘little Earth’), which simulated the aurora and demonstrated its link with solar flare activity. Wilson’s cloud chamber, which enhanced the study of sub-atomic particles, was acclaimed by Nobel Laureate Lord Rutherford as “the most original and wonderful instrument in scientific history.”
The work of these scientists helped to establish the study of a wide range of phenomena, such as solar flares and cosmic rays, which can affect the Earth’s atmosphere and damage communications satellites in space, as well as probing the sub-atomic world of radioactive nuclei and elementary particles.

Professor Stan Cowley, head of the Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group, explained: “The work of these two scientists, starting in the 19th century, led to two branches of ‘big science’ in the 20th and 21st centuries, namely space science and solar system exploration, and particle physics and the fundamental structure of matter, respectively.”

The Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group in the University of Leicester Department of Physics & Astronomy forms the science partner in this arts/science project, which is led by Ms Jo Joelson of London Fieldworks, supported by Fellowship Funding from the Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Board, amongst others.

Professor Cowley said “One of the objectives of the project from our viewpoint has been to increase awareness of the development of our subject from its beginnings over a hundred years ago, and the related development of methodologies and technologies. It is also exciting to be involved in a multi-faceted project which has a very different flavour and emphasis from our usual scientific research.”

There are a number of outcomes from the “Little Earth” project, one of which has already taken place - a twinning ceremony between Ben Nevis and Haldde in October 2004 at the West Highland Museum in Fort William.

The most important outcome is the “Little Earth” video installation created by London Fieldworks, which will be exhibited at the Wapping Project in London from 14 January to 12 February 2005, before moving on to the Fort William Mountain Film Festival (19 February to 3 March 2005).

The installation consists of a synchronised video presentation projected onto a suspended cube-like structure, with a surround sound score and narration. Footage has been shot on Haldde and Ben Nevis, with computer animations provided by the Leicester Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group.

A book of essays related to the project is also about to be published (13 January 2005) entitled “London Fieldworks: Little Earth” (London Fieldworks Publ., ISBN 0-9549497-0-6). This contains a contribution from Professor Cowley on the life, times, and legacy of Kristian Birkeland. Gustav Metzger, well-known as an originator of Auto-Destructive Art in the 1960s, has written an introduction, and there are other contributions on Wilson and the arts-science interface.

The University of Leicester Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group became involved in “Little Earth” through previous projects concerned with the life and times of Kristian Birkeland, one of the founding figures of space plasma physics.

London Fieldworks was established in April 2000 by artists Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson as an umbrella organisation for their interdisciplinary collaborations. Further information is available on the website:, tel +44 (0) 208 985 6340, email

Ather Mirza | alfa
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